Leon (Joseph) Edel Essay - Critical Essays

Edel, Leon (Joseph)


Leon (Joseph) Edel 1907–

American critic and editor.

Edel is widely recognized as the world's foremost scholar on Henry James. His interest in James dates back to the 1920s, when he wrote his undergraduate thesis on James and the modern psychological novel. Since then, he has written prefaces to and edited numerous volumes of James's work and written many critical and biographical studies on James. Most prominent of these is his five-volume series, The Henry James Biography (1953–1978). This work, published as a two-volume set under the title The Life of Henry James (1977), took Edel nearly twenty years to complete and has been called by Hilton Kramer "one of the most extraordinary literary labors of our time."

The first volume of James's biography, The Untried Years: 1843–1870, appeared in 1953, The second and third volumes, The Conquest of London: 1870–1881 and The Middle Years: 1882–1895, were published in 1962, and Edel won a National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize for these works. After the fourth volume, The Treacherous Years: 1895–1901 (1969), and the final volume, The Master: 1901–1916 (1972), were completed, critics generally agreed that Edel's biography provided a depth and insight into James far surpassing any other study to date and that it also stood as a monumental work of art in its own right.

Edel's approach to biographical writing combines a journalistic attention to detail, a psychological interest in the artistic mind, and an artful mastery of narrative flow. Due to Edel's extensive research and probing precision, The Henry James Biography dispels many of the myths surrounding James and reveals previously unknown facts about his life and his character. Critics often praise Edel's ability to incorporate immense scholarship into a graceful, readable text and the imaginativeness and ease with which he connects James's life and art. Edel's manner of extracting the story behind the man has resulted, many critics believe, in a vivid evocation of a complex literary master. According to Alfred Kazin, Edel's attempts to "'melt down' his materials into an organic narrative that would not only record, but directly portray, Henry" have succeeded in presenting a complete account of James's life and work.

Few critics find fault with the factual scholarship of The Henry James Biography. Some, however, question Edel's methods, especially the psychological interpretations he employs in his analysis of the writer and his work. Quentin Anderson commends Edel's attempts to examine the texts in light of James's unconscious motivations, but he holds that Edel dissociates the early formative years from the mature artist, asserting that "Edel is not to be trusted with evidence about the psyche." How the people in James's life influenced his "choice of themes, subjects, characters, and events is endlessly documented, yet the influence of James's psyche on the immediate prose surface is barely touched upon." William H. Gass, noting that James led an unremarkable life yet produced extraordinary works, believes the "history of such a man must somehow contrive to be the history of his imagination." Like Anderson, Gass is unsatisfied with Edel's efforts "to explain James's genius, to find the secret sources of his imagination."

In addition to his work on Henry James, Edel has written biographies of James Joyce, Willa Cather, and, perhaps most notably, the Bloomsbury group. Although Bloomsbury: A House of Lions (1979) has been faulted for its overly sympathetic and romantic portrayal of the group's members, this work is marked by a similar attention to detail and the same interest in revealing the unknown facts of the Bloomsbury circle that characterized The Henry James Biography.

Edel's views on the connection between literature and psychology are expounded in both The Psychological Novel: 1900–1950 (1955) and the recent Stuff of Sleep and Dreams (1982). In The Psychological Novel Edel traces the origin of the modern psychological novel to the year 1910, when new writers broke away from the techniques of such "materialist" authors as H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, and John Galsworthy and embraced the stream-of-consciousness techniques of such "spiritualist" authors as James Joyce, Marcel Proust, and Dorothy Richardson. He claims that the psychological novel shares with Symbolist poetry a desire to evoke states of consciousness. Critics generally agree that although his argument is not new, Edel presents it clearly and intelligently. Stuff of Sleep and Dreams continues Edel's exploration of literary psychology; in this work he attempts to define and support the psychological approach to literature. Although his methods have received varied critical response, Edel's position as one of the most important contemporary literary biographers remains secure.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 1-4, rev. ed. and Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 1.)

Alfred Kazin

Leon Edel has come to be recognized as the prime authority on the life of Henry James. And at a time when James has been made the subject of so many appreciative but highly theoretical essays, we have been waiting on Mr. Edel to give us … an authentic and definitive biography. Now, with the first volume of this long-expected work ["Henry James: The Untried Years, 1843–1870"], we can see that Mr. Edel has been aiming not only to get at all the facts, but to enter so deeply into the spirit of his subject that his book would have the ease and naturalness and shape of a work of art. And in this he has succeeded—brilliantly and movingly. One can criticise him for being almost too sympathetic with Henry, and he does tend to see the other Jameses entirely too much through Henry's eyes. But a few criticisms aside, the book is important and beautiful….

When Mr. Edel began his patient and exhaustive labors more than twenty years ago, there was still some question whether James belonged to American literature. And despite the current fashion in his favor, much of what is written about him suggests an alchemist inhumanly mixing great novels together only for the sake of "form," rather than the touching, limited, and insatiable writer who is so American in his travels, his international scene, his too clear-cut morality. James brings home to us the amazing personal vision that is the lonely strength of American literature. Perhaps it is because we have never really seen James in his own time and place—in all those native places of the heart he occupied wherever he lived—that we have never really had a biography until now….

Mr. Edel has understood that with so peculiarly sensitive a novelist for his subject, it was essential to "melt down" his materials into an organic narrative that would not only record, but directly portray, Henry moving, reading, dreaming, and at last beginning to write.

What Mr. Edel has done is to give us that long-buried world of James's childhood and youth…. He has restored to us the extremely vulnerable, shy, and ambitious person James was,...

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Charles Feidelson, Jr.

Mr. Edel's biography of the young Henry James ["Henry James: The Untried Years"] is imposing…. The very notion of devoting so many pages to a period before James had produced a single important work is itself a measure of Mr. Edel's aspiration…. Zealously, but with intelligence and grace, he sets the record straight: he picks up all the "stitches" which James in his memoirs "dropped for worry-saving"—disposes of rash speculation as to the nature of the injury which James suffered at the age of eighteen—marshals the evidence bearing on James's affection for his cousin Minny Temple—unearths James's first short story. The only major fault in this phase of the book, though a strange one in a work that rightfully assumes so authoritative an air, has to do with the annotation: the notes are so sketchy and so badly presented as to make it almost impossible to discover the basis for many particular statements in the text.

The theme of "Henry James: The Untried Years" is plainly stated and elaborately developed. "Above all," says Mr. Edel, "it is … necessary to dispel the belief that there was, so to speak, no 'life' behind the Art of Henry James, that his was a purely cerebrating genius." Mr. Edel sets out to make the "life" as lively as he can. Not that he strains the evidence unduly: in the important cruxes he shows a fine impartiality…. Perhaps taking his cue from the undoubted fact that the very young James was often a...

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Mark Schorer

Mr. Edel [in "The Psychological Novel, 1900–1950"] is intent on examining the developments in fiction since the break that, according to Virginia Woolf, occurred in December, 1910, that break at which the novelists whom she called "materialists"—Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy, etc.—fell back into the dark pit of the nineteenth century where they belonged, and the novelists whom she called "spiritualists"—Proust, Joyce, Eliot (significantly), and by implication, herself—leaped upward into the airy realms of light where they joined the poets. His chief exemplars are Proust, Joyce, and—no, not Virginia Woolf, who was not really an original—but Dorothy Richardson, with long turnings to Henry James and William Faulkner for incidental support. His general argument is that these writers, in their determination to develop techniques whereby they could render unique states of consciousness in prose, joined the novel to the purposes of symboliste poetry. The argument is not new, but it has seldom been so lucidly presented.

The topical steps by means of which Mr. Edel arrives at his conclusions are familiar, too…. Along the way one encounters continual brilliances of device and of insight: the juxtaposition, for example, of the small boy Proust in the world of the theatre with the small boy James in the same world…. The whole comprises a fine example of extended critical definition.

Mark Schorer, "Airy Realms of Light," in The New York Times Book Review (copyright © 1955 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 19, 1955, p. 4.

Newton Arvin

In the purely biographical sense, nothing could well exceed the care and the patience with which Mr. Edel has accumulated, over many years, the immense materials for his portrait [of Henry James], or, on the whole, the taste, the imaginativeness, the narrative sense with which he has disposed them. This work is not for a moment to be classified along with those flat-footed—and usually slow-paced—literary biographies which put the royalty statement and the railway timetable on the same level with the genuinely revealing and illuminative…. [Heavy as the] burden of documentation is, Mr. Edel never, or very seldom, bends under it. His own literary skills—his feeling for story, his sense of type, and the like—are...

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Howard Mumford Jones

[Henry James, the] foremost American novelist, is entitled to rich and ample writing, and Mr. Edel has an encyclopedic knowledge of James. One may admire his patience, yet question the value of his thousand, incessant details [included in Henry James: The Conquest of London, 1870–1881 and Henry James: The Middle Years, 1882–1895]. To list piece by piece the furniture in a Boston hotel room casually occupied, to note that in his London lodgings on Bolton Street James faced a sooty, brown, brick wall, to dilate for a paragraph on the delicate dilemma of entertaining Maupassant at dinner when the clubs were closed … these trivia, though "true" enough, clog narrative. Biography is, after all, narrative...

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William H. Gass

The exact sensuous feel of things was something, on occasion, [Henry James] expressed a clear desire and even a preference for:

He wanted the hour of the day at which this and that had happened, and the temperature and the weather and the sound, and yet more the stillness, from the street, and the exact lookout, with the corresponding look-in, through the window and the slant on the walls of the light of afternoons that had been….

This look-out, with its corresponding look-in, James seems never to have sufficiently had, and there is more of mystery and evil than eagerness and glee in the inferences he draws. Throughout [Mr. Edel's Henry...

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Philip Rahv

With this fifth volume, perhaps somewhat too brashly and summarily entitled The Master, Leon Edel at long last brings to a close his biography of James which has been appearing serially since 1953. In its way it is a phenomenal production, if only because of the truly exhaustive research that has gone into it and because it is probably the longest biography in English, and for all I know in any other language, of any single writer—of a writer, moreover, of whom it cannot be said that he really "lived," as even Edel himself admits albeit reluctantly and apologetically.

With so exiguous a life, what James mostly did was to spend his time alone in a room writing, subsisting on impressions and...

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Quentin Anderson

The last of Leon Edel's five volumes, "Henry James, The Master: 1901–1916," has appeared, and those who have, since the publication of the first volume in 1953, enjoyed his skilfully managed unfolding of the novelist's career may simply be assured that the climaxes of this period [are] … all properly scaled to give them their accustomed pleasures, in a prose tone which has a perceptibly, though not disproportionately, greater touch of magniloquence than that of earlier volumes. There is not much to startle anyone—Edel has fewer unexpected observations to offer than are to be found in the fourth volume…. The only element in the fifth volume which might provoke uneasiness is the use of passages from James's...

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Christopher Ricks

In Bloomsbury there are nine characters in search of an author. This Pirandello pirouette was turned by Leon Edel 15 or 20 years ago. Since then, the ratio has reversed to nine authors in search of any one Bloomsbury character, especially for such important dramatis personae as Professor Edel's: the economist John Maynard Keynes, the man of letters Leonard Woolf, the novelist Virginia Woolf, the biographer Lytton Strachey, the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, the artist-critic Roger Fry, the art critic Clive Bell and the literary critic Desmond MacCarthy.

So "Bloomsbury: A House of Lions" has to admit that every one of these big cats will soon have exhausted its nine lives. But Professor Edel's...

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V. S. Pritchett

It is one thing to write a cradle-to-grave biography of a man of genius and to bring to the surface the psychological forces that seemed to form him, as Leon Edel did in his five-volume life of Henry James, a masterpiece of the biographer's art. It is quite another to evoke the interlocking lives of a group like "Bloomsbury," in which there are two geniuses and many talents—all individual, though united in their beliefs and tastes, and who die, variously, in youth, their middle years, or extreme old age, outside the biographer's convenience. Another pattern is necessary, and here Mr. Edel succeeds again. "Bloomsbury: A House of Lions" … is by far the most instructed and graceful book we have had on a subject that...

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Kenneth Atchity

Leon Edel's masterly career in literary psychology, expressed in this superb collection ["The Stuff of Sleep and Dreams: Experiments in Literary Psychology"], reveals the process by which the artist's private myth is transformed into a dream we all can share.

"Art is the result," Edel writes, "not of calm and tranquillity, however much the artist may, on occasion, experience calm in the act of writing. It springs from tension and passion, from a state of disequilibrium in the artist's being."

Edel's essays explore the grace and the courage by which the artist maintains his inner chaos in service of his muse. Surrounded by a sea of critical jabberwocky, Edel's sensitivity is an...

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David Trotter

"If we pierce any artist's legend", Edel claims [in his latest book, Stuff of Sleep and Dreams], "we discover an all-too-troubled human." Piercing the artist, and the "human" behind the artist, he discovers an all-too-troubled legend. The legend is called "literary psychology".

Literary psychology seeks the emotions and the persona within the work as distinct from the person of the artist. It is an attempt to study the metamorphoses of the unconscious materials of literary art into conscious image and symbol; and the metamorphoses of fancy into the finished work shaped by language and tradition.

The finished work re-imagines or...

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